On British Imperialism and Shiny Things

Or, blood diamonds are a monarch’s best friend

Britain has a new monarch, and with the changing of the guard, pomp and circumstance are on broad display. For the first time in almost three quarters of a century, the world is about to see a level of pageantry it’s hard to properly describe. Set for May 6, 2023, the double coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla is set to be one of the year’s most exciting events. It’s also a great time to soak in the sparkle and glitz of the British royal jewels, a collection that rivals any in the world. It’s also a collection that’s soaked in the blood of British imperialism and conquest.

First off, it’s important to note that the vast majority of the British crown jewels only date back to the reign of Charles II. While some of the individual jewels predate his reign, the actual pieces of jewelry, like the crowns and necklaces, etc, were created for his restoration. Almost everything prior was destroyed when his father, Charles I, was overthrown. The current Imperial State Crown, which I’m going to focus on, only dates back to 1937, when it was created for George VI, Elizabeth’s father. There are four gemstones to note on the Imperial State Crown, though only two of them can be reliably dated.

The Imperial State Crown

First up is the large diamond on the very front bottom. This diamond is the Cullinan II, the second largest fragment of the Cullinan Diamond, which was discovered in 1905 in South Africa. It’s a blood diamond, though I’ll get into the gritty details below.

Next is the Black Prince’s Ruby, which is actually a large spinel. It’s the red stone in the front middle. Supposedly, this spinel was promised to the Black Prince, the eldest son of Edward III, when he aided King Pedro the Cruel of Castile in taking back his throne after he was cast out by his bastard half-brother Enrique of Trastamara (my sweetie, John of Gaunt, married Pedro’s daughter Constanza and got involved in trying to wrest control of the Castillian throne back to Pedro’s line). When Pedro refused to hand the gem over, the Black Prince promptly turned around and left him to his fate. Enrique overthrew Pedro again and killed him. The Black Prince supposedly picked the spinel off Pedro’s corpse. There’s no way to verify that the gem on the crown is the same, but it makes for a neat story. There’s a hole drilled in the top of the gemstone that allowed it to be hung as part of a necklace, but it was plugged with an actual ruby.

On the back of the crown is the Stuart Sapphire, the only other gemstone that can be properly verified. It most likely belonged to Charles II, and was taken with James II when he fled England during the Glorious Revolution (when his daughter and son in-law, Mary II and William III, invaded England). It passed down the family line until his grandson, Henry Benedict, sold it to George III who in turn returned it to the royal crown jewel collection. It now resides on the back of the Imperial State Crown.

An old painting of Queen Victoria’s crown, with the Stuart Sapphire front and center under the Black Prince’s Ruby

The last gemstone of note is the sapphire in the center of the cross sticking above the orb at the top of the crown. This is St. Edward’s Sapphire and was supposedly taken from the tomb of St. Edward the Confessor, though there’s no way to confirm this.

Supposedly, most of the pearls on the crown came from Catherine de Medici when she left Italy to marry Henry II of France. The story goes that she gave them to her daughter in-law, Mary, Queen of Scots, upon her marriage to Catherine’s son, Francis II. Mary then took them with her when she returned to Scotland, and then with her when she fled to England. When Elizabeth I had her executed, she took the pearls and added them to her jewel collection. They eventually made their way onto the Imperial State Crown. This is almost definitely false, since, as I mentioned, most of the jewels in the collection were sold off or destroyed when Charles I was overthrown.

The largest fragment of the Cullinan Diamond, Cullinan I, takes center stage on the Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross, seen below. It can be removed and hung as a pendant from Cullinan II.

The Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross

So why is the Cullinan a blood diamond? Prior to the gem’s discovery, the possession of South Africa had been warred over between the British Empire and descendants of Dutch colonizers. The man who actually owned the mine where it was discovered, Thomas Cullinan, was a white man, and for a white man to own a diamond mine in the region in that time period meant that his wealth could only be the result of colonizer influence. To make matters worse, when he was unable to sell the diamond, the Transvaal Colony, which had taken control of South Africa after a bloody war between those Dutch colonizers and the British Empire, bought the diamond and gave it to Edward VII (Victoria’s son) as a goodwill gesture. It as eventually split into nine major fragments, all of which are owned by the British royal family. Today, it is see it as stolen wealth from Africa’s native population, and the largest fragment, Cullinan I, is often called the Shattered Star of Africa.

The rough, uncut Cullinan as found in 1905

However, the Cullinan is not the most controversial gemstone in the British collection. That title belongs to the Kohinoor, which means “Mountain of Light” in Persian. While its discovery and origins are obscure, it was most likely part of the Mughal Peacock Throne, which was a famous jeweled throne of the crowning glory of the Mughal Empire in India. The throne was eventually looted in the 1740s by an invasion from Iran, and the Kohinoor was recorded as being one of the gems stolen. It bounced around a bit between rulers until it ended up with the Sikh Empire. When the British East India Company annexed the Punjab, which was the name given to the area in India under British control, the diamond was made part of the treaty that ended the war, and the 11 year old Maharaja, Duleep Singh, was forced to hand it over.

To make matters worse, the diamond was recut when it was received in England. Mughal-era diamonds were typically cut and polished to preserve the size of the stone, with the effect that the facets were irregular and therefore the full shininess (not the official term) isn’t maximized (also not the official term). So when the Kohinoor was put on display at The Great Exhibition of 1851, crowds were left disappointed. Prince Albert, Victoria’s husband, decided to have the stone recut to maximize the shininess (still not the official term) and removed the culturally significant original cutting, reducing the gem’s size from 186 carats to 105 carats.

Replicas of the Kohinoor, showing the top and bottom with the original Mughal-era cut

The Kohinoor now sits on the crown made for Elizabeth II’s mother, another Elizabeth. Four countries besides the UK demand the diamond’s return: India, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The UK has, of course, said no.

The Kohinoor with its new cut, the large round diamond on the center of the crown

Why do I bring any of this up? Besides the fact that I like looking at shiny things along with pretty dresses, it was originally announced that Camilla would be wearing The Crown of the Queen Mother (as pictured above) for her coronation, which is scheduled in May. Realizing wearing the Kohinoor was an epic fuckup in today’s society, it was more recently announced that she will wear Queen Mary’s Crown with Cullinan III, IV, and V. In other words, the royal family is jumping from the frying pan into the fire of gemstone controversy. For reference, Queen Mary was Elizabeth’s grandmother, the wife of George V.

So what’s the answer here? Four separate countries demand the Kohinoor besides the UK, and the UK has said, unequivocally, they’re not giving anything back. Not the Kohinoor, not the Cullinan, not the Benin Bronzes, nothing. Hell, if the UK gave everything back they’ve stolen, the British Museum would be empty.

Well, this is one issue I’m going to keep my mouth shut on. I officially have no opinion whatsoever. We live in an age where we can manufacture structurally perfect diamonds in a lab and people are fighting over sparkly rocks you dig out of the ground. It seems kind of silly to me, but I understand the cultural significance behind all those blood diamonds. As for giving them back and to whom, I’m keeping my mouth shut. I’m just going to keep staring at the shiny.

What do you think? Let me know! Leave your comments here or follow me as I ride Twitter’s continuing spiral of death @Rhydnara.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: